PRINT March 1972

Larry Poons’ New Paintings

IN MY ESSAY “ART AND OBJECTHOOD” published in this magazine more than four years ago I argued that the present success and future survival of the modernist arts have come to depend above all on their ability to overcome the theatrical; and that in the case of painting this means the ability of individual works to suspend or defeat their own objecthood—to establish their identity as paintings in opposition to, or over and above, their nature as objects. Throughout the early and mid-1960s the struggle against theatricality and objecthood was fought out chiefly through the medium of shape. But starting in the late ’60s, and guided principally by the work of Jules Olitski, there has been a shift of pressure away from issues of shape towards issues of picture-surface. I view that shift as a further stage of the same struggle. For some time now it has seemed that probably the fundamental difference between paintings and objects is that a painting is so to speak all surface, nothing but surface; whereas no ordinary object, however thin or flat, can be described in those terms.1 And I see some of the most ambitious pictorial art of the past several years as having found itself compelled to declare its identity as painting largely through an implicit appeal to that difference, i.e. by continual acknowledgment not merely that paintings have surfaces, or that those surfaces are flat, resistant to touch and face the beholder, but that paintings consist in or are limited to their surfaces in ways that distinguish them, as it were absolutely, from other kinds of objects in the world. That is how I understand what has seemed to me the compulsion of certain recent painting of major ambition to affirm that the entire surface, which is to say every bit of it, is spread out before the beholder—that every grain or particle or atom of surface competes for presentness with every other. The emphasis on surface in these paintings is not so much on its expansion as on its concentration; not so much on its extension as on its intension. Perhaps more accurately it is an emphasis on the second of each pair of terms as a vehicle for the first: as if the convincingness of the “outward” spread of surface across the picture as a whole depended ultimately on the convincingness of its “inward” spread across the same expanse.2

The progressive abandonment during the past several years of the flat, fairly thin and texturally uniform (or “atextural”) color of the best painting of the first half of the ’60s in favor of a new involvement with tactility, in particular with the tactile properties of paint, must be seen in this light. So for that matter must the almost complete exhaustion during the same period of the bare canvas ground, the canvas without sizing or paint, as a resource for ambitious painting. By that I mean not just that the strongest painters have come increasingly to eliminate bare canvas from their pictures but also that whenever sizable areas of it have been allowed to remain they have tended more and more to bring the level of the picture down. In fact it has sometimes seemed that the authority of the canvas was giving out, becoming depleted, right before our eyes. (Like all judgments of the viability of artistic media this is at bottom a question of conviction, not phenomenology.) Neither the spread of color alone nor the spread of bare canvas plus color is able to provide the spread of surface that I have tried to characterize; and tactility has become important as a means to that end. On the other hand, tactility alone, or tactility that overwhelms color, produces merely a kind of colored relief whose surface is experienced as sculptural or literal rather than as essentially pictorial. Something like that seemed to happen in the so-called elephant-skin pictures that Larry Poons exhibited at the Rubin Gallery more than a year ago. But the paintings that he has been making since, six of which were recently on view at the same gallery, show a renewed emphasis on color without any diminution of tactility—and the gain in quality has been enormous.

In Shivering Night, Firstwild, and E’ Special, the last and by far the best of the “elephant-skin” pictures, large quantities of Aquatec lumped and thickened with gel have been allowed to build up physically above the canvas in successive layers, making a strongly tactile skin or crust whose thickness and layeredness the eye continually probes. But while the paint substance tends for the most part towards separateness, stratification, and the suggestion of temporal sequence, the paint color tends on the contrary towards unity, immediacy, simultaneity. The result is a contest between the heightened, or deepened, tactility of the picture-surface and the warm, mostly intense color that seems everywhere to lie beneath that surface and to erupt through it into visibility. And the result of that is an unprecedented, because multiplex, declaration of surface: as if the different layers, brought forward by color and comprising the total material contents of the painting, themselves compete for presentness across its entire expanse. To take just one example: in Firstwild, a really fine painting, our experience of the principal orange area and of the numerous small lumps and pieces of sky blue pigment that seem to adhere to it like remnants of a stripped upper layer is primarily of a single lurid greenish orange flush, a simultaneous eruption of complementaries that in effect wholly subsumes the manifest physicality of that portion of the work. (Actually, the bits of blue pigment poke up through the orange from below; they belong to a lower, “prior” level despite their tactile prominence. Contradictions of this sort, often involving Poons’ characteristic ellipsoid shapes, play an important though mostly subliminal role throughout these paintings.)

In the three other paintings on show, the first of a new “drip” series made by throwing buckets of Aquatec and gel against lengths of canvas stapled to the wall, the paint buildup is less and there is almost no sense of layering. There is, however, a general tension between the strong, and again strongly tactile, up down orientation of the throws and drips and what seems in contrast the natural expansiveness of the color, a tension that makes possible both the large size and the lateral extension of the superb Railroad Horse. At the same time, the extreme viscosity of the paint enables Poons to intermix individual colors with extraordinary closeness without actually blending them. (In Ly, perhaps the strongest painting in the show, this takes place within individual drips.) The effect is of a wide range of colors straining almost physically to merge—in that sense to spread “inward”—and being held apart by the physicality of the pigment, which seems to spread if not in a different direction at least at a different rate. Finally, the strands and skeins of clear and colored gel that figure prominently in Ly make themselves felt in terms almost of pure viscosity or resistance to being spread, and thereby slow or impede still further—make still more intensive—the spread of surface. Nothing could be more misleading than to see the “drip” paintings in terms of a return to Abstract Expressionism. The presiding influence is, inevitably, Olitski. The throws of paint have an ungestural directness of attack comparable to that of spraying and altogether beyond the reach of the “elephant-skin” pictures, which in comparison feel worked, almost worked up. And no recent paintings, not even Olitski’s, have been less dependent for their success on gradations of value. Gradations of warm and cool, or simply of warmth, seem to take their place. (None of these remarks fully applies to the last of the “drip” pictures, See Robin, the one relatively unsuccessful work in the show.)

To sum up: in both the “elephant-skin” and the “drip” pictures color and tactility contend with one another for possession of the picture-surface. The ultimate triumph belongs to color—this is true even in E’ Special, whose surface has been glossed over with several coats of acrylic varnish—and is further evidence for its continuing primacy in modernist painting. But the fact of contention suggests that the the primacy of color is no longer allowed to go uncontested. This is another point of contact between Poons’ recent work and Olitski’s paintings of the past few years, in which the use of acrylic gel has resulted in a milky, almost skinlike surface that denies the immediacy though not ultimately the intensity of color in the interests of presentness. I don’t mean to imply that Poons’ paintings are at all derivative; they aren’t. The point is rather that they demand to be compared with Olitski’s, and moreover that they are able to sustain the comparison. Five of Poons’ pictures at the Rubin Gallery were first-rate, and the show as a whole seemed to me the strongest by him I have ever seen. It was also compelling proof, if more were needed, that modernist painting and sculpture at their highest level continue to provide touchstones of the conviction of quality for the arts in general.

Michael Fried



1. See for example Part IV of “Shape as Form: Frank Stella’s New Paintings,” Artforum, November, 1966; and Part IV of “Art and Objecthood,” Artforum, Summer, 1967. This difference not only was laid bare but was virtually brought into being by the development of modernist painting. It was not something that previous critics and historians simply failed to notice; it was not fully there to be noticed until a relatively short time ago. As for the shift of pressure away from issues of shape, it is still imperative that the literal shape of a painting declare itself as precisely that, the shape of a painting and not merely of an object. But the fact that that imperative is now chiefly met by cropping signals an easing, or at least a simplification, of the kind of problem shape seemed to present as recently as four and five years ago. There may even be a sense in which the opposite of cropping, the use of predetermined formats (whether rectangular or “shaped”), has begun to feel disturbing, as if that in itself were enough to tip the balance towards objecthood.

2. Louis’ veils, Olitski’s spray paintings, and Noland’s recent vertical pictures with crisscross stripes and bands on washed looking or “smoky” grounds belong to this development. I might add that I first used the notions of competing for presentness and intension (contrasted with extension) in connection with Jules Olitski’s color. See the catalogue introduction to “Jules Olitski, Paintings 1963–67,” an exhibition held at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, April–June, 1967.